My big screwup (and other election night anecdotes)

There’s nothing quite like working as a journalist on election night. Reporters, editors, TV anchors, data analysts, managers and technicians are all running on adrenalin, impatiently awaiting results, and excited about all the surprises.

But before I go on, a little mea culpa: I screwed up. Big time. The worst mistake you could make on election night: calling a race for the wrong candidate. Throughout the night, I was editing two pages, each with a close election: North-end Ahuntsic and south shore Brossard-La Prairie. Both were stolen from the Liberals by the Bloc in 2006, and throughout the night the results went back and forth between the two sides.

As the final deadline approached for late editions at 1:30 a.m., both ridings showed the Liberal ahead slightly. For Brossard, it was a difference of only 42 votes, so the final headline expressed that it was probably going to head for an automatic recount. The final margin was 143 votes, or 0.24 percentage points, above the 0.1% cutoff for automatic recounts.

In Ahuntsic, the margin was larger, and we declared victory for the Liberal Eleni Bakopanos. The Bloc wouldn’t concede, but we were as sure as we could be. After the paper was sent out, the race turned again, and the final margin was 142 votes, with the Bloc’s Maria Mourani coming out the winner. So this story didn’t end quite the way I thought it did.

The error was compounded elsewhere. Not only was there the riding story itself, but there were general recaps with seat totals, there were pictures of prominent Quebecers (including Bakopanos) saying how they fared (she was given a win), and the results page, which actually marked Mourani as elected even though at that point she was trailing in the number of votes.

It’s the kind of thing that happens in every election, but it’s no less embarrassing.

My election night

This wasn’t my first election working for the Gazette. I was there on election night in 2006, as well as the 2005 municipal election. But I’m still new enough to find the atmosphere during an election fascinating. And this time I was closer to the action than I’d ever been.

I was one of three people whose sole job of the evening was handling election pages. But in reality, it was all hands on deck. Eight pages in the A section, plus an eight-page B section meant 16 pages of election coverage. My responsibilities were B5 and B8 (if you notice any other mistakes, feel free to blame me for them too).

The shift started at 6pm, which isn’t all that unusual for me. What was unusual was seeing so many managers and reporters around at a late hour. For the occasion, we got treated to free food, and naturally I overindulged.

On each of my two pages were three articles for three Quebec ridings that were expected to be close (links go to the late-edition articles that appeared in this morning’s paper):

Each of those ridings had a reporter filing live copy. (Having six reporters under my control did leave me a little drunk with power.)

At first I felt a bit sad that I didn’t get any cool ridings like Papineau, Outremont or Westmount, but as it turns out I had plenty of excitement.

With three editions, whose deadlines are an hour and a half apart, each article needed to be filed and edited three times (and headlines, decks, pullquotes and even some photos also had to be changed between editions).

The reporters, of course, were mostly out at the ridings themselves getting quotes from the candidates and reactions from the campaign supporters. They would file their stories by magical methods from their laptops. That worked out brilliantly until the system broke down for almost an hour.

Oh, I should add one other difficulty. You see, there’s a byline strike currently in effect, so when a reporter would call and say “it’s Brenda” or “it’s Charlie”, I’d have to go through my notes to figure out what riding they’re in and what page the story for that riding is on. Even at the end I couldn’t remember which was which.

The early stories, which had to be in by 10pm, didn’t have any results. We knew by then that it would be a Tory government, but most of the meat inside was filled with background. It’s rather difficult to come up with headlines for stories about races in individual ridings when you don’t know who won yet. As the first edition deadline approached, we had the option of including the first few polls (literally two or three), but that would have told just as little.

Because I was so busy with my own work, I wasn’t keeping track of what was going on elsewhere, including a crisis with the website that resulted in it being down for about an hour and riding results pages not working during the most important period on election night.

After the final deadline at 1:30am, the newsroom quickly evacuated as everyone headed across the street for drinks on the boss (thanks boss). Most of us ended up closing the bar, discussing the upcoming U.S. election, reporters’ stories from the field (one had just driven back from Brome) and all sorts of random other stuff.

I finally got to bed about 5:15am. Thankfully, I had today off.

3 thoughts on “My big screwup (and other election night anecdotes)

  1. Pingback: Fagstein » A journalist’s wet dream: Time for Election #3

  2. David Leonardo

    At the weekly bilingual Brossard Journal PLUS (circ 25,000) we shared your stress on that election night with the back and forth numbers in the Brossard-Laprairie riding.

    While the Gazette went to press at 1:30 a.m., we held off to 3 a.m. unsure if we could still get our newspaper printed for 7 a.m. distribution. That extra 90 minutes helped us predict accurately that a recount was certain. Our competition, the Brossard Eclair, also on a Wednesday publication date, gave the news a week later. So, it was worth staying up the night.

    David Leonardo


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